Stories as self-defense
TLDR; Stories are mental games that safely prepare us for conflict.
In a discussion between some coaches of martial arts, one of them described all of the different schools of martial arts as types of games. You are teaching people to defend themselves, but you need constraints so athletes don’t hurt themselves or others. So you set up rules like, “no eye-gouging.” Those rules turn every type of martial arts training into a game.
But, in an actual fight, there are no constraints. Except maybe ideas of honor or worries about legal repercussions.
For example, with boxing, a good training regiment has both sparring matches and work punching a heavy bag. When sparring, the participants can’t use their full force. They have to hold back. And so, the boxer must practice hitting with the punching bag (or slab of meat) with their full force.
Humans are prosocial by nature. We don’t need teeth or thick hides because we cooperate with one another. But how do we prepare to defend ourselves?
In Geronimo’s autobiography he tells a story of an Apache woman named Cho-ko-le who was attacked by a bear.
She jumped off and her pony escaped, but the bear attacked her, so she fought him the best she could with her knife. Her little dog, by snapping at the bear’s heels and distracting his attention from the woman, enabled her for some time to keep pretty well out of his reach. Finally the grizzly struck her over the head, tearing off almost her whole scalp. She fell, but did not lose consciousness, and while prostrate struck him four good licks with her knife, and he retreated.
When her riderless horse returns home, her people search for her, find her, bring her home and tend to her wounds. She eventually recovers.
And I often wonder, what made this woman think she could fight off a bear? The answer I keep coming back to is something that is a feature of both dreams and stories: Grandiosity. If you are in a high-conflict, life-or-death situation, a useful mindset to have includes a strong sense of persecution, feelings of grandiosity, and the certainty of ego ideal.
- Persecution: “This thing wants to kill me.”
- Grandiosity: “I’m capable of fighting back.”
- Ego Ideal: “I deserve to win this fight.”
These are not good qualities, however, if you want to live in the kind of society where people will notice you’re missing, go searching for you, and tend to your injuries.
And so, each night while we sleep, our muscles are taken offline, and our brain simulates situations that differ from our typical daily experience. Studies have looked at which areas of the brain are active/inactive during dreams and have predicted mental states associated with persecution, grandiosity, and ego ideal (see the work of Dr. Calvin Kai-Ching Yu.)
This allows people to practice prosocial behavior while awake, but also experience conflict through dreams. This is why you should never try to wake up a sleepwalker. They might hurt or kill you before they even realize who you are.
What does this have to do with stories? They often have this same propensity to show high-conflict situations full of persecution, grandiosity, and ego ideal. The best example I’ve seen recently is the movie RRR. But you can find the same elements in a high-regency romance, or even children’s books.
So that’s my highly-speculative theory. Stories are games that prepare us for life-or-death situations. Stories borrow narrative design from our dreams, and allow us to experience high-conflict mental states so we can be prepared to fight off a bear.